Our departure from Taiwan did not go without incidents. Experiencing 3 earthquakes in 4 days from our basement dorm in Taipei and receiving both Presidential alerts & emergency alerts on our mobiles was as terrifying as the earthquakes. There is something very unsettling afterwards that de-stabilises you. Maybe it is the thought another will come as you drift off to sleep.
We left the earth’s tremors behind and began checking in at the airport with our bikes packed away in boxes and our panniers neatly wrapped in market type shopping bags. Within a minute of attempting to check-in our joy turned in to horror. No, not another earthquake but a thunderbolt straight through the wallet. “That will be 28,000 NT$ for your excess baggage…”, the young counter attendant calmly asked. In exchange terms that is £700 or approx $1,000 for 2 bikes! There was no reasoning with Tiger-air staff, they had been trained well to not alter their stance. When I asked to speak with the manger, explaining our situation, she replied “you could wear all your clothes or throw things away!”. I think my neck and face changed colour at this response. We reclaimed our passports and retreated.
We spent a high blood pressure hour exploring all our options (other airlines, parcel delivery) and the only cost effective alternative was to miss the flight, buy new tickets and pre buy excess baggage allowance. This was immoral and ludicrous but it saved (not really saved) us £400. We had learnt an expensive lesson here, one we will not fall into again. Budget airlines, be more upfront and stop hiding behind your small print!
We heard the final call for our flight to Okinawa as we settled down on benches until 3.30am check-in the next morning.
Hello Okinawa Island/Japan
We touched Japanese tarmac at 8.30am on Friday 9th February. We were greeted by Okinawa immigration and both given a 90 days entry visa and only a few questions were asked about our trip and departure from Japan. The first stop before claiming our luggage was the toilet. I remembered my working trip to Tokyo many years ago and how my first visit to the toilet filled me with Joy. I waited for B to return from the ladies to see her reaction. “I didn’t know which buttons to press, so I didn’t press any”, (more on Japanese toilets in a future post).
The tasks of assembling the bikes began outside the airport building. Where 2 others cyclists had the same job. We weren’t firing on many cylinders due to the lack of sleep but after a couple hours we were on the bikes and heading into a new country. A country we had both dreamed of cycling through.
On a arrival to our hotel in Naha, they were very kind and took petty on us as we’d missed last night’s room and had to pay for 2. They noticed we’d booked a small room (yes, we are on a budget) and after a long phone call and being handed the phone to speak with the manager (no, not another manager I thought), they upgraded us to a superior room. We spent almost the whole afternoon and night in the room, recovering from the last 24 hours. Bliss.
The first 1-2 days in a new country is a bit discombobulating. You are grappling with a new language, currency and food etc. We were now riding on the left side of the road and cars looked like they had all been cartoon drawn as they are mainly squared metal boxes! Thankfully road signs were also translated in English.
We were in search of an outdoor shop to buy gas and window shop the nice gear. On route we meet a Japanese cyclist who asked us where we came from and he welcomed us to Okinawa. I wondered the store, while B guarded the bikes. As I exited the store she said, “that guy we just met cycled back and handed us money”. He wanted to take us to lunch but had no time, so instead he gave us money to buy us lunch as a welcoming gesture!
We enjoyed a great Japanese meal courtesy of the nice cyclist. Another new experience was to order food. It was a little tricky ordering from the cashier: a vending style machine. Pop your money in and select your dish. No pictures or English to aid our selection. Luckily the cook understood we ate fish and pointed to the button to press. The food didn’t pop out, just a ticket to hand to the cook.
Our route clung onto the coastal road heading north west. Crystal turquoise clear ocean was our companion. Each twist in the coast would reveal another stunning deserted beach. The traffic diminished as soon as we were out of built up areas and we occasionally were overtaken by speedy Lycra racing cyclists. The north was extremely undeveloped and pleasantly remote with further unspoilt beaches and endless forests. The animals were in abundance and their calls were joyous. However, the tranquillity would be broken by the violent noise of the U.S Osprey (not the bird). This brings us on to the military presence here, a sore topic. We met Klaus from Denmark (who lived in Japan for 30 years), who explained many US military issues in Okinawa. With this background knowledge and our own experience we can understand how the people of Okinawa are upset and demanding peacefully the military to leave. One day we came across a large demonstration (by a majority of older generation) who also showed us their archive of protests and damage being done to their country.
We visited the Okinawa peace memorial museum in the south of the island on our last cycle day. A very humble and moving reminder of the WWII destruction to the islanders from both sides. Almost a quarter of million people were killed in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 (civilians and military). The cornerstone of peace was a stark reminder of several nationalities killed.
We were further met by many kind gestures; people offering drinks and sweets galore, a farmer giving sugar cane and a squash, a kind caretaker at the campsite (forest education centre) who drove us to a shop so we could buy food and stay longer at his idyllic site (which we were the only campers, again) and the friendly security guards at Yonabayu marina (Chouja & Seiki), who allowed us not just to pitch our tent on their grounds and take a hot shower but they also gave us a bag full of drinks and snacks. We read people from Okinawa were more open and friendly than elsewhere in Japan and we can certainly vouch that Okinawan people are certainly warm and welcoming.
Wild camping was very easy and we took advantage of the beaches, the pavilions and the most serene campsite in the forest of the north. We only slept in a bed in Naha city at the start and end of the trip. Which of course is always great to feel clean sheets on you. This was the Kitchen Hostel, with private cubicles in the dorm and ample relaxing spaces.
After 400km of circumnavigating the island with a few side trips we can say we have totally enjoyed the island with its dry and warm weather. Not sure we are keen on cooler weather but we are also excited to continue into Japan over the next 8 weeks. A 26 hour ferry ride to Kagoshima awaits us as we begin our 8 weeks cycling adventure in search of many papermaking museums.
All photography by Jack Blake & Barbara Salvadori 2018©